Dark Nights Ahead for Northlight?

Coming off one of its strongest seasons in several years, Evanston’s Northlight Theatre is searching frantically for a new home. The Evanston school board has given the company a directive to vacate its present space–an elementary school at 2300 Green Bay Road in Evanston, where it’s been housed for all of its 15-year history. “The situation is pretty fluid,” said Lloyd Morgan, a member of Northlight’s board of directors; Morgan didnt rule out the possibility the school board would reverse its decision. But another Northlight board member put the matter more bluntly: “This is terrible,” she said, adding that she strongly doubted the theater company would be able to settle things at the last minute with Evanston school officials. As it stands, the school board plans to reopen the school and wants the theater company out by November so renovations can begin.

Northlight board members apparently have been to find alternative spaces in which to produce the 1990-91 season. Options in Evanston are severely limited. The Coronet theater, a former cinema, seems one of the most likely prospects at the moment, though the theater has little or no backstage space and office space would have to be rented in another building. Other theater companies have mounted shows at the Coronet, but it has not really been established as a viable location for live theater. Northlight is looking at several other Evanston spaces too, and Morgan did not rule out the company’s moving to a better site in Skokie or another northern suburb. Ideally the company would raise enough money to build its own new theater complex. Northlight attempted to raise funds for a new home several years ago but could not secure financing in time to meet various deadlines.

Northlight’s difficulties come at a particularly inopportune moment. Susan Medak, Northlight’s managing director for the past six years, announced in April she would be leaving the organization in August, to head up the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley, California. Some observers, suspicious of the timing of Medak’s departure, suggested she might have known about the trouble brewing well in advance and begun making alternative arrangements. Medak, who is at the Berkeley Rep this week in meetings, said a move to temporary quarters would ultimately benefit Northlight. “It will help focus public resolve on our needs,” she said, adding that the Northlight board would move ahead with for a permanent facility, perhaps to open as early as 1993. In recent years, Northlight has been buffeted by several changes in artistic director and–to put it charitably–an uneven artistic product. Growth has been slow in coming as well. Northlight wound up with 5,700 subscribers in the 1989-90 season, well below the 6,400 subscribers of six years ago. The operating budget for the 1989-90 season was approximately $1.1 million, not much larger than the $800,000 operating budget of six years ago, considering inflation. But in the past year Northlight artistic director Russell Vandenbroucke seems to have hit his stride, producing one of the most interesting and varied seasons of any of the area’s larger not-for-profit theater companies. It remains to be seen whether the latest round of problems will hinder Vandenbroucke’s artistic momentum.

The Civic Center’s Poor Performers

Former Civic Center for Performing Arts executive director Randall Green’s final days in his post will not be counted among his most glorious. Both the Russian import The Peace of Brest-Litovsk and Grandma Moses–An American Primitive were abysmal performers at the box office. During its three-week engagement, the former pulled in a paltry $100,000 over three weeks, and about half of that came from Wisdom Bridge Theatre, whose subscribers were entitled to see the show as part of their subscription package. Though the city’s theater industry had trumpeted the production as a unique experience, the public clearly was not moved to see it. Brest-Litovsk’s poor reception very well may portend a decline in future Russian imports. Cloris Leachman’s Grandma Moses was another bomb. That engagement was further marred by a behind-the-scenes battle over whether the run was a Civic Center presentation or a “four-wall rental,” which would help determine who was financially responsible for losses. Sources say it eventually was made dear to Grandma Moses producers that they were renting the Civic Theatre, with the Civic Center helping with the marketing and advertising support.

Meanwhile the Civic Center is expected to announce that it will present a spring festival of dance next year, with as many as five or six dance troupes in the lineup. But center sources said the center henceforth will operate with tighter fiscal controls and fewer potentially risky bookings.

Cinemas Singing Box-Office Blues

Will Dick Tracy turn into another Batman, last summer’s megahit? Local exhibitors are taking a wait-and-see attitude about whether the comic strip update, starring Warren Beatty and Madonna and opening June 15, will be a blockbuster. “It should open big, but a lot will depend on the reviews,” noted one local exhibitor, who added that he was uncertain of the widespread appeal of Beatty, who has not been a major draw in recent years. Exhibitors also are leery of the of high ticket prices–$6.50 or $7 at most area first-run theaters–and substandard product. Recently the top ticket at first-run houses in the Los Angeles area jumped to $7.50, which means Chicago’s prices will eventually climb as well. Chicago exhibitors already have noted at least one troubling trend in the summer pictures released to date. Several have opened to big grosses, only to start plummeting almost immediately. Back to the Future Part III is but one of the films that has quickly lost momentum in the Chicago area. “Nothing is sustaining itself at the box office,” lamented one movie theater operator. Meanwhile, Longtime Companion looks to be a winner at the Music. Box. In its first weekend, the film about several homosexual couples forced to confront the AIDS crisis pulled in approximately $29,000, easily beating the Music Box’s old weekend record of $21,000 set by the rerelease of Gone With the Wind.

CTA Sells Out

Sure, the CTA had the best intentions when it planned to run Gran Fury’s controversial Kissing Doesn’t Kill poster on the sides of buses. Sure, they intend to get them up just as soon as they can. But when the 85 slots scheduled to carry the poster sponsored by Art Against AIDS were sold at the last minute to commercial advertisers, was it really something the CTA couldn’t control? A clause in the contract with Transportation Display Inc., which had arranged with Art Against AIDS to run the poster, says the company has the right to drop public service ads if it can sell the space at commercial rates. Well, 11th-hour interest in the slots on the part of advertisers may not be entirely coincidental: CTA officials had received numerous phone calls from aldermen concerned about the troublesome posters. The CTA board met Monday and issued a statement saying every effort would be made to get the posters up by July or August. Don’t hold your breath.